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Some Thoughts on the COVID ‘Lab Leak’ Theory

FILE - In this Feb. 1, 2020, file photo, funeral home workers remove the body of a person suspected to have died from the coronavirus outbreak from a residential building in Wuhan in central China's Hubei Province. T... FILE - In this Feb. 1, 2020, file photo, funeral home workers remove the body of a person suspected to have died from the coronavirus outbreak from a residential building in Wuhan in central China's Hubei Province. The central Chinese city of Wuhan has raised its number of COVID-19 fatalities by more than 1,000. State media said the undercount had been due to the insufficient admission capabilities at overwhelmed medical facilities at the peak of the outbreak. (Chinatopix via AP, File) MORE LESS
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June 1, 2021 12:50 p.m.

Are you having trouble keeping up on the press discussion of a ‘lab leak’ theory of the origins of COVID? Here are a few pointers.

Broadly speaking, there’s seldom been an example of a more rapid shift in public opinion or rather elite conventional wisdom in the face of so little changing evidence. A bunch of right wing or right-adjacent columnists are running around high-fiving each other and patting themselves on the back about how “the media” got it wrong.

On balance, this isn’t true. What happened is that from the outset China-hawks who were largely out to defend Donald Trump made a series of baseless accusations about COVID either being a bioweapon or the accidental release of a Chinese biological warfare weapon. When that got shot down (there’s strong genomic evidence against this), they retreated to a more conventional lab accident as their pet theory. The best one can say is that most journalists became reflexively skeptical to all such claims since they were mainly coming from people who are professional liars with obvious axes to grind.

This pattern continues even up until today. Over the weekend The Washington Post ran this report, which was originally headlined as some version of ‘Biden picks up on research done during the Trump administration’. Who are these Trump administration experts? One of the two quoted is David Feith, Trump’s deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs. If that name rings a bell, yes, David is the son of Doug Feith, perhaps the most central figure in spreading disinformation about WMD and Iraq and al Qaida in the lead up to the Iraq War. Lest you think I’m simply judging Feith on the basis of his family … well, he came to the State Department via The Wall Street Journal editorial page. Even today the mainstream press seems unable to wrangle this story without keeping readers abreast of the propagandists and liars who are pushing much of it.

Here’s another example of that. On May 26th President Biden ordered a new 90 day review of all the evidence about the origins of COVID and his statement included this passage.

As of today, the U.S. Intelligence Community has “coalesced around two likely scenarios” but has not reached a definitive conclusion on this question. Here is their current position: “while two elements in the IC leans toward the former scenario and one leans more toward the latter – each with low or moderate confidence – the majority of elements do not believe there is sufficient information to assess one to be more likely than the other.”

It was a jolt to conventional wisdom on this topic that at least one part of the intelligence community supports the lab leak hypothesis. But this is a case where understanding the jargon is really important. What this says is that most of the US intelligence community doesn’t think there’s enough evidence to know either way. One group thinks it’s lab related. Two others think it’s natural. But both say they really don’t have enough evidence to draw any real conclusions.

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And yet, a few things have changed.

Reading opinion commentary you’d think there was a sudden turnabout and that a lab leak has all but been proven. What’s more accurate is to say that we didn’t know the origins of COVID and a lab leak was treated as very unlikely to now where we still don’t know and knowledgable, non-propagandists are saying we should look at that possibility more closely.

Part of the shift is that with Trump gone and the biggest megaphone in the world not being used to make baseless claims the reflexive resistance to discussing this possibility has loosened. But there’s also maybe a bit more evidence. None of the new information is dispositive. There’s just some more hints, a bit more circumstantial evidence that could suggest a lab-related origin that has made experts who mostly ruled it out say they’re not so sure.

One example of this is that scientists have still not found an animal version of COVID which is the clear link to the human version. If scientists had found such a cross over link that would basically end the debate. The fact that it hasn’t been found even 18 months later makes people less certain it’s out there and at least a bit more open to a different theory of COVID’s origins. Of course, the rejoinder is simply, maybe it just hasn’t turned up yet. And that’s what I mean by the elusive and fragmentary nature of the new evidence.

There are also a few scientists who suggest that there are some genomic elements of COVID which could suggest transit through a laboratory. Others say those genomic structures show no such thing.

Then there’s the fact that the scientist in charge of the part of the lab in question apparently didn’t disclose some of her earlier work with viruses quite similar to COVID.

Again, hints and allegations basically but ones that make deeply knowledgable people less willing to dismiss some sort of lab leak out of hand. Let’s also remember the Feith family because all of it does have an air of a bunch maybes and ‘can’t rule it outs’ suddenly adding up to certainty after some crafty packaging by malevolent interested parties.

The best discussion I’ve found by this is a piece Donald G. McNeil Jr, the recently defrocked Times science and infectious disease reporter, published on Medium back on May 17th. It struck me as the right mix of skepticism, fluency in the science but also openness to new possibilities.

I’ve seen enough – speaking as a total lay person with no technical knowledge but reading over expert opinion critically – to think that we should not rule this out but that we also shouldn’t get rushed along or bamboozled by people with deep political or ideological needs for it to be true. It seems like a real possibility. But mostly we have suspicions and lack of disconfirming evidence rather than evidence itself.

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